Published in Economic Development

Criminal justice reform can help address workforce development, biz group says

BY Sunday, February 16, 2020 07:00pm

series of recommendations from a state joint task force on reducing Michigan’s ballooning jail population can also address workforce development challenges, says a leading West Michigan business group.

The Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration — created by executive order from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last year — in January released a 46-page report outlining 18 criminal justice reforms for lawmakers.

Left: Alexa Kramer, right: David Guenthner COURTESY PHOTOS

Recommendations include ending license suspension and revocation for actions unrelated to safe driving, using appearance tickets as an alternative to arrest and jail, training police officers in behavioral health, and standardizing criminal justice data collection and reporting statewide, to name a few. 

West Michigan business advocates say criminal justice reform is a top policy priority, following recent legislative success that has drawn bipartisan support.

“We’re at a time when we hear talent is a top issue and barrier for businesses of all industries and sizes. Our work in the workforce development space is around breaking down barriers and also tapping into populations we think are not fully tapped into,” said Alexa Kramer, director of government affairs with the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce

“The criminal justice system is one of those areas that can be a key barrier to workforce development for a lot of folks,” she added.

In September, the Grand Rapids Chamber submitted testimony to the task force that was co-signed by executives from 11 area businesses, including Wolverine Building Group, RoMan Manufacturing, Mercy Health Saint Mary’s and Cascade Engineering

Jailing people before trial because they can’t pay bail or for other administrative violations negatively affects the workforce, businesses say.

“These practices unnecessarily disrupt our businesses, destabilizing the individual’s productivity and the productivity of their employer,” the companies wrote in the letter. 

The letter includes four “shared principles” among the business community: “The fastest route out of a crime is a job;” “jail is not a one-size-fits-all solution;” “use data and evidence-based solutions;” and “no one should ever be in jail because they are poor.”

Crime down, jail population up

The task force — made up of 12 Whitmer appointees and nine state officials — was chaired by Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget McCormack and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, and met with experts across the state for four months last year.

The group examined 10 years of arrest and court data from the state. The recommendations paint a bleak picture about the status of Michigan’s jail population, which has nearly tripled over the past 40 years while crime rates have hit 50-year lows. In the past few decades, Michigan’s jail population was roughly split between pretrial and convicted detainees.

The top five reasons people are sent to jail are: operating under the influence, assault, driving without a valid license, theft, and parole or probation violation. 

The jail population also is made up disproportionately of black men, while estimates show that 23 percent of those entering jail had a serious mental illness, a figure that increases in rural counties.

The report notes the rising jail population has strained local resources.

“Policymakers in Michigan aiming to address jail incarceration must therefore address both the large number of people whose lives are disrupted by short jail stays, who consume significant amounts of public safety resources, and the relatively small group of people whose long stays drive up county jail populations,” according to the report.

The Michigan Association of Counties is studying the report’s recommendations, but said in January ahead of the report’s release that the effort is “notable for both its outreach to county leaders directly involved in jail operations and for the data it has brought to public attention.”

MAC Executive Director Stephan Currie was among the co-signers with top lawmakers and public officials who outlined the scope of the task force’s work.

The report also drew support from multiple public policy advocacy groups.

“The task force recommendations follow a theme that has been key to the successful criminal justice reforms of the last decade and a half: We should lock up the people who we have reason to believe are a threat to public safety and develop alternative punishments for people who violated a law but are not a public safety risk,” David Guenthner, senior strategist for state affairs at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, said in a statement.

Michigan League for Public Policy President and CEO Gilda Jacobs said her organization “wholeheartedly supports” the task force’s recommendations.

“Our current jail system’s overemphasis on fines and fees — and severe imbalance and punishment for those who can’t afford them — is creating a modern-day debtors’ prison where people with lower incomes receive harsher penalties than people with money,” Jacobs said in a statement. “This area of our justice system has sadly become more focused on public profits than public safety and the punishment often fits the pocketbook more than the crime.”

Appetite for action?

The report’s release follows multiple statewide criminal justice reforms over the past year, including raising the age of defining an adult and allowing parole for medically frail inmates. In late 2019, the state House passed reforms involving the expungement of certain criminal records.

The recommendations are effectively suggestions for issues for lawmakers to address. House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, and Republican Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey indicated a willingness to take up additional criminal justice issues.

“We have made significant progress in reforming our criminal justice system in recent years, but there is much more we can do to protect the rights, freedoms and safety of every single Michigan resident,” Chatfield said after the report’s release. “The House will review every one of these recommendations and begin work immediately to help protect the people of our state and give them the local and state government they deserve.”

Advocates, too, are optimistic about the political outlook.

“I feel very confident the political climate will allow movement on this knowing this is a great bipartisan issue and something we can rally behind,” said Kramer from the Grand Rapids Chamber. “There is still a lot of work to be done in this space.”

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